"A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere."
So read the poster of the 1969 movie "Easy Rider," which came out at the height of the counterculture's disillusionment with mainstream America. It's a time Virgil Bartolomucci remembers well.
The Huntington Beach resident served with the Army in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 and, like many, came home to a less-than-friendly welcome. When Bartolomucci arrived at the airport, he said, protesters were waiting to jeer anyone in uniform — which prompted him to change into civilian clothes for the ride home.
"You didn't want to wear your uniform," Bartolomucci said. "You didn't want to say you were in the service."
By the time you read this, though, Bartolomucci and hundreds of other Easy Riders will be motorcycling across the continent. And unlike the heroes of the film, they expect to find America everywhere they look.
Bartolomucci is among the veterans expected to take part this year in Run for the Wall, an annual event that honors casualties and prisoners of war. Anyone is welcome, but the majority of riders are veterans who, at the end of the journey, visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and parade from the Pentagon to the Capitol. It's an emotion-filled event for those who served their country during one of its most tumultuous times. But for some, it's also an opportunity to right past wrongs.
Friday morning, I sat with Huntington residents Bartolomucci, Jack Bailey and Larry McAndress as they spoke about their treatment as returning veterans. McAndress described having people harass him until he grew his hair long just to blend in with the hippies. The lack of support, Bailey said, felt like a "raw deal."
But when McAndress went on Run for the Wall last year, he saw a changed national conscience.
On the two-week ride, he said, city councils and chambers of commerce donated money for meals. State troopers escorted the riders and closed freeway ramps. On one overpass in Kansas, onlookers stood with a giant American flag.
"It was about seeing how patriotic our country still is," McAndress said. "And our country is still very patriotic."
Like him, I was a young adult when antiwar protests swept America — in this case, over Iraq. But I noticed that, even when people railed against Bush's foreign policy, they never extended their rancor to the troops. Perhaps, in the decades since Woodstock, we've learned that bravery and politics aren't always intertwined. And that's a good thing to remember Memorial Day.